There may be even more reason for women to dread that time of the month.
Feminine-hygiene products like tampons and pads have been found to contain certain ingredients that could be harmful to women's health, but consumers are left largely in the dark about potential risks of the products they are using.
Many menstrual-hygiene products contain dioxin, synthetic fibers, chlorine, and fragrances, but the amount of these ingredients — and the health risk they pose when used in these products — remains a bit of a question mark.
A report from Women's Voices for the Earth — a nonprofit that seeks to eliminate toxic chemicals — links these ingredients to health problems like endocrine disruption, cancer, and reproductive harm. The extent of the risks associated with feminine-hygiene products are woefully under-researched, women's health advocates say, but the fact that they are used on an extremely absorbent and permeable area of the body raises the level of concern.
Rep. Carolyn Maloney introduced legislation Wednesday that aims to clarify these unknowns. The Robin Danielson Act — named after a victim of Toxic Shock Syndrome from tampon use — would require the National Institutes of Health to conduct or support research into these ingredients, encourage the Food and Drug Administration to look more heavily into the risks of a variety of menstrual products, increase oversight of company data submitted to NIH and FDA, and require public disclosure of the information.
The degree to which these products are monitored by the FDA depends on their classification and level of risk, according to an industry spokesperson. Tampons and pads are classified as medical devices and subject to more regulation — particularly tampons because of the threat of Toxic Shock Syndrome. Other feminine-hygiene products like douche solutions and deodorizers are classified as over-the-counter drugs or as cosmetics, depending on the claims being made, and they are subject to less regulation. These are not generally reviewed by the FDA prior to marketing.
The FDA does routinely monitor dioxin levels in tampons, and the agency says concerns are largely unfounded. While the agency has found trace dioxin levels in these products, the risk of negative health impacts is "negligible," it says.
Manufacturers also maintain that their products are secure. "The safety of women is the foundation of everything we do," Mandy Ciccarella, a representative for Procter and Gamble — which owns Tampax and Always brands — wrote in an email. "We share our feminine care product information with independent experts — including medical consultants, university scientists, and the FDA — so that women can use our feminine-hygiene products with confidence."
But advocates worry that even these small amounts of chemicals could have a cumulative adverse effect, with thousands used over a lifetime on an extremely permeable part of the body.
This is not the first time Rep. Maloney has introduced this kind of legislation; she's been trying to pass it for more than a decade. The New York Democrat first introduced tampon-safety legislation in 1997, introduced the first version of the Robin Danielson Act in 1999, and pushed subsequent versions of the bill again in 2003, 2005, 2008, and 2011. The 2014 bill is different in that it focuses more on the regulation of other types of feminine-hygiene products besides tampons, said Rep. Maloney's office.
The biggest hurdle has been the unwillingness of lawmakers to broach what could be considered an uncomfortable subject, according to her office.
"This is not exactly something congresspeople want go to the floor and talk about," a spokesperson said.